A text appeared on his phone from an unidentified number. “Someone’s famous on Penn Compliments.”
Chris Chen, a junior in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, remembers thinking, “I have no idea what this means.” When he logged onto Facebook and saw the post in which he had been anonymously tagged, he understood who had texted him.
Someone who identified himself as “The Hitchhiker” had submitted a long post, which got over 400 likes, to Penn Compliments describing Chen’s act of kindness. After surviving “a week of constant hitchhiking, homelessness, near-frostbite and utter confusion,” the complimenter wrote, Chen had offered him help.
Chen realized the text must’ve been from a guy he met in Starbucks months earlier.
In mid-March, he was sitting in Starbucks with a friend planning a mission trip to China with Grace Covenant Church. A few tables away sat a distraught stranger.
“He was getting off the phone, and it was very obvious that something happened, that something was wrong,” Chen said. “So I just turned around and asked if everything was alright.”
This stranger was — and still is — very willing to describe the details of his experiences. He has told the story of a trip to Penn gone wrong to multiple friends, Penn Compliments, a counselor and a Penn student who commented on the post.
Last week, he shared his story with the Daily Pennsylvanian. Due to the nature of his experiences, he requested anonymity, and will be referred to as “The Hitchhiker” in this article.
The Hitchhiker was an Emory University senior last semester but dropped out and joined the military.
His account of the night that lead him to Chen is intense. He doesn’t know the names of anyone he encountered and said some of the details were fuzzy.
The Hitchhiker said he came to Philadelphia last March to visit a friend who attends Penn. When the bus dropped him off in the city, his friend didn’t answer her phone to come meet him.
He said he stepped inside a bar to keep warm while he waited for her to respond. When she finally did call, he went outside to talk to her — and he thinks someone at the bar drugged his hookah. Strangers he met at the bar offered him a ride, which he accepted. He remembers seeing that the men were carrying knives and then jumping out of the car while it was still moving.
Sleeping outside in an alley that night, he recalled waking up to two men trying to rob and sexually assault him. He said he “managed to overpower both of them,” but the fight escalated quickly and everyone involved was injured.
“I was so angry I didn’t know what I became. I hated them for trying to do this to me, and I went absolutely berzerk on them.
“Both of them were pretty f—-ed up afterwards … I’m not sure they’re even alive at this point,” he added.
There are no reports of homicides in Philadelphia County during the week in question. The DP was unable to confirm any of the events through police or hospital records because he said he didn’t go to any authorities that night out of fear.
When he finally made it to Penn and told his story to the friend he planned to visit, “She told me straight up that she didn’t trust me.” He said his friend refused to let him stay with her.
The Hitchhiker’s friend did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
On March 16, he posted a Facebook status that said, “Dear Philadelphia, I’d love it if anyone in town can offer me a place to stay tonight. I can offer to do your chores, amuse you with my stories and charm and celebrate Saint Paddy’s day with you.” The Hitchhiker said the one offer of help he received was a dead end.
He decided to leave Philadelphia and hitchhike through the northeast, trying to find other people to stay with.
Many of his Facebook photos of his travels have friends tagged in them, as well as likes and comments. The Hitchhiker said no one let him stay with them because of midterms and schoolwork before their spring breaks. “I’m used to people saying ‘no’ though,” he said.
The Hitchhiker thought his best bet to get back to Atlanta was via Philadelphia, so he returned about a week after his first night there. That’s how he ended up sitting next to Chen at Starbucks.
Chen listened to this stranger’s story then gave The Hitchhiker his number, offering to help him find a place to stay for the night. The Hitchhiker texted Chen later that night, saying that some security guards at Van Pelt found him a place to stay and thanking Chen for his kind words. He wouldn’t write the Penn Complements post for nine months.
Engineering junior Max Morant commented on the post and said that the story struck him as “darker” than most of the other ones he’s seen on the page. He connected with the post because some of his friends have had experiences hitchhiking in the past as well.
“If that happens to somebody, that is something terrible, and good for Chris for being helpful and for making a person’s day better in a small way,” he said.
College freshman Devon Bankler-Jukes also commented on the post, and she got a message from The Hitchhiker afterwards saying, “I’m glad that my compliment managed to touch you,” she remembered.
They traded a couple of Facebook messages in which The Hitchhiker told Bankler-Jukes about his experience in Philadelphia as well as other details about his time in the army and his struggles with betrayals of friendship in the past. Bankler-Jukes said she was supportive and wished him the best, but she didn’t want to get too connected to him because she couldn’t actually be there to support him.
Chen has not had any other contact with The Hitchhiker since the text letting him know about the compliment. But he’s thankful for the experience and hopes to hear from The Hitchhiker at some point in the future.
“I think a lot of times Penn students are just so locked into only the Penn world. So I think when we … reach out to people, good things happen,” he said.
The Hitchhiker closed his message to Chen with a similar belief in karma and a strong appreciation for what Chen did for him.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you right now, but I hope—no, I will ENSURE, in any capacity—that good things happen to you, if I ever see you again. I hope you’re still good. Yours, The Hitchhiker.”